Saturday, April 5, 2014

Still Waiting For A Good Disability Song ...

I’m not talking about a smarmy folk song you’d sing in a church youth group. Not a cry in your beer, patriotic country music song. I’m talking about a sexy, kick-ass, defiant rock or pop song from the point of view of a person with a disability. I would even accept a dance, R & B, or Hip-Hop track, even though those are not my favorite genres. The main thing is I want it to be genuine, and genuinely good. I don’t want to “like” it because it’s about disability, even though musically it’s just mediocre. I want to like it from all angles. It should go without saying that writing a sad song about how awful it is to be disabled doesn’t count.

The only way I see this happening is if the music world produces a popular or at least niche popular band in which one of the main writers has a disability. Even then, it might not happen, given how ambivalent most disabled people are about sharing details of their experience. Plus, I have no idea at all what a truly satisfying disability song would even be about.

Disability has worked as a subject in just about every other art form. Why is it just about unheard of in music?

Passing The "Tyrion Test"

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Last November, I tried to come up with a disability equivalent of the Bechdel Test, the three-point checklist used to identify “good” depictions of women in movies and TV shows. Once more, a work “passes” the Bechdel Test if it:

1) Features at least two women, who

2) Talk to each other,

3) About something other than a man.

I settled on three criteria that on review months later, I still feel comfortable with. And in honor of my all-time favorite disabled character on TV, Tyrion Lannister in Game Of Thrones, I am calling my test, The Tyrion Test. A movie or TV show “passes” the Tyrion Test if:

1) At least one character with disabilities is involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities,

2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less nor more severe than they would be in real life, and

3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers … supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.

Tyrion Lannister definitely passes, as do the other disabled characters on "Game Of Thrones". Their disabilities are important aspects of their characters, but not everything they do relates to their disabilities. Their disabilities are not overblown or played for cheap drama or humor. And none of them are passive. They all give as much as they receive, act as much as be acted upon. Even Hodor, a fairly minor, one-dimensional character, seems at times to have a inner motivation and sense of duty that goes beyond mere habit or dependence. "Game Of Thrones” several times has gone even further, occasionally highlighting situations where one impaired character helps another in ways only a fellow disabled person can.

A couple of additional notes on the Tyrion Test:

- I think it is important to stick to only 3 criteria. The simplicity of the Bechdel Test is part of what makes it so compelling. That said, a good case can be made for another rule … that disabled characters should be played by disabled actors.

- The list doesn’t focus on what NOT to do, because I think that the damage done by cliches and even offensive depictions can be mitigated by adding the above three qualities. The problem in bad depictions isn’t so much any particular thing that disabled characters do, it’s when clich├ęs and negative portrayals is all they do.

I haven’t yet tried the Tyrion Test on a wide variety of works. That really needs to be done to get a sense of whether the system really works. Maybe the readers can help me. What are your favorite, or least favorite disability movies and TV shows? Do they pass the “Tyrion Test”? Give it a try and leave a comment below!